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John Shahan: How I Became an Oxfordian Activist

It’s rare for a high school English teacher to mention that there is any doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare, but I was fortunate to have one who did inform her students about it. I didn’t think much about it then, but it stayed with me and probably made me more receptive to the idea when I read Charles Champlin’s review of The Mysterious William Shakespeare on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review in 1984. It was a glowing review, so I bought and read it immediately, plus a biography of Queen Elizabeth to place it in context.

John Shahan is founder and chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition and principal author of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare. He has been an Oxfordian activist for nearly twenty years.

John Shahan is founder and chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition and principal author of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare. He has been an Oxfordian activist for nearly twenty years.

I found the issue fascinating and Charlton Ogburn’s treatment totally convincing and also very moving. I followed the issue, as time allowed (working full time in health services research/planning), until I took early retirement and decided to make it a hobby. Being a skeptic, I reserved making a final judgment, but the case for Oxford was compelling. I spent one summer studying Shake-speare’s Sonnets closely, memorizing fifty-five of them. How anyone could read them without seeing the connections to Oxford is totally beyond me.

Reading J.T. Looney’s book was a revelation. I had the impression it must not have been very good, since he had not succeeded in legitimizing the issue, or in winning the case for Oxford. To my surprise, I found it methodologically brilliant, even in some ways better than Ogburn. Surely this book should have scored a major breakthrough, and the fact that it didn’t made it clear to me that something was very rotten in the state of orthodox Shakespeare scholarship.

Other influences on me include the many fine articles in the Elizabethan Review, including Peter Moore’s “The Abysm of Time,” and John Rollett’s double cryptogram solution to the dedication to the Sonnets, which I am convinced is essentially correct, despite the anomalies. Also Ramon Jiménez’s many fine articles on the history plays, dates of plays, and early plays that belong in the canon. I should also mention Joe Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare (1997), which is excellent, and by a man who set out intending to debunk Ogburn but was instead converted. Articles by these researchers can be found online at shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org.


Thus far this description of how I became an Oxfordian is written in the same vein as others, but I’d like to also say a bit about how I became an activist, which not every Oxfordian does. Certainly when I took it up as a hobby I had no intention of being as involved as I have been. After all, I wasn’t a Shakespeare scholar and it wasn’t clear that I could make any difference. What I did have was a passion for the issue, a sense of its historical importance to humanity, and a sense of commitment inspired by Ogburn’s TMWS and another book of his that I read.

It was The Marauders, about his experience waging guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in Burma during World War II. As it happens, I had an uncle who was a Marauder. I read Ogburn’s book with great interest. It is a moving account of superhuman achievement against enormous odds and at great peril. What I found most impressive was his insight into the human condition, as in the following:

The worst thing . . . was the suspense. You never knew from one moment to the next when you would run into the [enemy]. In the jungle you could never see a thing except a small stretch of the trail ahead. . . . There was always the knowledge that we had no one on our flanks. The unit was all alone. Then there was the consuming sense of being unready, ill-equipped for what was demanded of you. Your soul rose up in protest against the terms of the trial. That was not what you were meant for! Maybe others were meant for it, but not you. Not at this time, at this place, in this way. You were not prepared. . . .

Nothing could have been better calculated than that experience to bring home to me a lesson that has to be learned. . . . It is this: Being unready and ill-equipped is what you have to expect in life. It is the universal predicament. It is your lot as a human being to lack what it takes. Circumstances are seldom right. You never have the capacities, the strength, the wisdom, the virtues you ought to have. You must always make do with less than you need in a situation vastly different from what you would have chosen as appropriate for your own endowments.

Reading that made me rethink whether I might be able to make a worthwhile contribution to the authorship movement despite feeling that I was ill-equipped, unprepared and unqualified. It’s a very difficult task we have undertaken, trying to overturn such a well-established myth, but nowhere near as difficult or dangerous as what Ogburn and his comrades faced in Burma, or what Edward de Vere overcame on his way to writing the greatest literature known to man. They found it in themselves to persevere despite the “outrageous fortune” fate had dealt them. Admiring them for it as we do, how can any of us fail to be inspired to try to do what we can?

— John Shahan

You can read the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare here.

“How I Became an Oxfordian” is edited by Bob Meyers. You may submit your essay on this topic (500 words or less in an editable format such as MS Word), along with a digital photo of yourself, to: info@shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org . Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”)

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About Erik Eisenman

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